Born in 1943 in Goole, Yorkshire, Gavin Bryars studied philosophy at Sheffield University and became a professional jazz bassist and a pioneer of free improvisation working especially with Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley. In the late 1960s he worked with John Cage and this influenced early works such as the indeterminately scored 'The Sinking of the Titanic' of 1969 and the classic 'Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet' of 1971.
A major turning point in his development was his first opera Medea, premired at the Opera de Lyon and Opera de Paris in 1984 (directed and designed by Robert Wilson). He has written two further operas, both with libretti by his long time collaborator Blake Morrison: Doctor Ox's Experiment (ENO 1998, directed by Atom Egoyan), and G (directed by Georges Delnon), commissioned by the Staatstheater Mainz for the Gutenberg 600th anniversary.
He has produced a large body of chamber music including 3 string quartets and a saxophone quartet both for his own ensemble and for other performers. He has also written extensively for strings as well as producing concertos for violin, viola, cello, double bass (plus one for jazz bass), saxophone and bass oboe. He has also written much choral music, chiefly for the Latvian Radio Choir, with whom he has recently recorded a second CD, and for the Estonian Male Choir.
He taught for a number of years in art colleges and has collaborated with many visual artists such as Bruce McLean, Tim Head, James Hugonin, Bill Woodrow and Will Alsop (Valencia Architecture Biennale). In 2006 he was a guest speaker at the 10th Alvar Aalto Architecture Symposium in Finland. He has made installations/performances for the Liverpool Tate Gallery, the Tate St. Ives, the Chateau d'Oiron, among others and worked closely with the late Juan Munoz, notably on A Man in a Room, Gambling.
Bryars has worked for many years with early music performers and has embarked on a series of books of madrigals: the first for the Hilliard Ensemble (texts by Blake Morrison), the second for the Trio Mediaeval Sextet (Petrarch sonnets), and the third for Red Byrd (Petrarch, translated by Synge). A fourth has been started
(longer Petrarch poems) and there are two books of Irish Madrigals. He has written a large number of "Laude", many for the soprano Anna Maria Friman, and is working on settings of old Irish texts with the singer Iarla I'Lionaird. He is also working on settings of Faroese saga poetry for the Faroese bass Roni Brattaberg, following their work together on settings of old Icelandic saga poetry.
Many choreographers have used his music and he has also worked closely with a wide range of choreographers and dancers including Lucinda Child (for Rambert Dance Company), Laurie Booth, William Forsyth (Frankfurt Ballet), Edouard Lock (La La La Human Steps). In 1999 he collaborated with Merce Cunningham on BIPED and from 2002 he worked closely with Carolyn Carlson, initially on Writings on Water for the Venice Biennale. His latest dance collaboration is Amjad, with Edouard Lock and La La La Human Steps, which is touring the world and comes to the UK in early 2008. David Dawson brought his own choreography to Bryars' Third String Quartet from Dresden to English National Ballet in July 2008.
He recently completed a theatre piece, To Define Happiness, with Peeter Jalakas for Von Krahl theatre in Tallinn, and a project around Shakespeare's sonnets, Nothing Like the Sun, with the Royal Shakespeare Company and Opera North. This has prompted an extended sonnets series setting Edwin Morgan's sonnets for American and European male voice choirs. He is also developing two chamber operas with Canadian writer Marilyn Bowering (on Marilyn Monroe) and with Glen David Gold (on the magician Erdnase).
Gavin Bryars' work is widely recorded on Incus, ECM, Point, Philips, Argo, Clarinet Classics, Daphanao, CBC Records, Touch, Mode, and on his own label GB Records.
He is an Associate Research Fellow at Dartington College of Arts and Regent of the Collage de 'Pataphysique.